Unravel 2021: Water Under The Bridge (Introduction)

For the last few years, I’ve decided to try my hand at running a roleplaying game at our local gaming convention (Enbicon). I haven’t run that many of them, and find the experience a bit daunting, but it’s a good challenge.

The image I always think of for this game.

One of the problems for me, however, was the question of what to run? I tend to run campaigns, not one-shots, so length is always an issue. But I wanted to take advantage of that notion, while also feeling free to experiment.

Thus, the Unravel series was born. It began with a particular setting book for the FATE system called SLIP, which intrigued me. The basic premise was that our world was being invaded by extradimensional beings. I discarded most of the rest of that setting eventually, and have kept with one central notion: if extradimensional forces were invading, how weird would that be?

Each time, I took all the flexibility of FATE as the opportunity to design something different. I’ve tried it four different ways so far, and am about to try an entirely different way.

The Game That Grew

In the first game, which I’ve retroactively entitled After School Special, a group of high-school students are kept after school for detention. When the teacher doesn’t come to check on them, they decide to leave, but discover that the school is starting to Unravel. In the end, they made it out, but not before the music room twisted into some sort of higher-dimensional beast. Behind them, the school was drawn into the vortex, vanishing completely.

In the second game, which I titled Further Down The Spiral, a team of investigators from Nautilus Industries is sent to investigate the weird happenings, hoping to find more evidence and otherworldly science to bring to industry. This game never ran, but in my notes I described my intention for the mood to be “Fringe meets X-Files meets Millenium meets Donnie Darko meets David Lynch meets Inception meets HP Lovecraft meets reality-distorting nightmares.” In it, the technical team would find themselves distorted as they came in contact with the strange phenomena, eventually discovering at least one source of it all.

The third game, which also did not run, was based somewhat on another really cool setting that was published for FATE that year called FATE of Cthulhu. My game was called Through The Spiral, and was to feature agents from the far future travelling back in time to the current day to try to affect a better tomorrow. They were the second team to go back, the first team having not apparently had any effect or having left any time capsules. This game would have lead the players to the same source that the previous game would have found, but they would have found more evidence that not only did the first team fail, some of them betrayed the cause. And that much of what they thought they knew about the era was wrong. A fun design, one that intended to satirize some of the modern day’s “normal” activities, and one in which the players knew the stakes of failure. Each of the characters would also have been marked by their travel, manifesting strange features of their own inevitable Unravelling.

In 2020, the game actually did run, albeit virtually, and I was again playing around with everything. Because it was online, I experimented with having all the sheets be in one large spreadsheet that everyone could see. I also experimented with live character design and large numbers of aspects, but ultimately that took too much time. (Previously, I had designed all the characters, but tried to leave customizeable bits or choices that players could make. That design seems to work better in a convention.)

That game was called The Last Thread, and had as its premise the idea of a group of high-school friends having a last party at the end of summer, just before they all went their separate ways. They were friends, but they all were mourning a mutual friend who had passed away. As the evening wore on, the cabin that they were staying in changed in remarkable ways, first with things not being exactly as they had encountered them before, then with the geography of the house shifting radically, and then with parts of the house being flooded. It was a bit fun and very weird, but somewhere I buried the lead, and ended up explaining what was going on in the end. All of this was the experience in the last moments of their lives, as their mutual friend drove off a cliff into the lake, taking all of his friends with him. Their friend had a certain affinity with the Twist, the force that is threatening to Unravel reality around them, and it manifested in this scenario — and was driving him insane. There were a few moral choices the characters could make along the way, and just about everyone of the characters perished because they were judged harshly.

I learned a lot about running the game, and how much I really needed to pare down things. In particular, I will no longer be including such large sheets with a dozen or two Aspects, and while I like the involvement of character creation, especially for new FATE players, it takes too long. And the scenario was too long, without enough specific things for the characters to do.

Back to the Present

In this year’s game, Water Under The Bridge, I’m trying to take my lessons and apply them, although I have less time than ever to do it. I also seem to be fundamentally incapable of doing anything entirely simple. In this scenario, three groups of people are converging on a facility deep within a nearby mountain chain. Through a strange quirk of nature, a river springs up within the mountain flows down over its side as a waterfall. In addition, the mountain is geologically active deep within. The facility was built to try to harness all of that, combining a water treatment plant, hydro power and geothermal power. But it was underfunded and too experimental, and as time went on, no longer as urgent.

In 1981, the facility was shut down. In 2001, a group of university students and their guiding professor obtained a grant and a pass to use the facility to conduct a collection of experiments.

And in 2021, a collection of motley thieves are hired to extract a valuable asset that was inexplicably buried within the facility.

The players will play a member of each group, and the game will span all three eras of time.

It’s ambitious, but I hope it will be interesting (and that I can pull it off!).

As I develop the idea (to be run on the weekend of September 24, 2021), I’ll to post weekly about it. If you plan to play in the game, I’ll try to make sure there aren’t any spoilers, but merely teasers.

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